It wasn’t planned, but, as the new year approached, I suddenly decided to dive into the holiday memories of my Italian childhood, as an intense yearning for my mother’s delectable Tortelloni alla ricotta spiraled out of control.
She used to make tortellini and tortelloni alternatingly, based on her mood, I suppose, as the first course for the major holidays, especially Christmas and New Year. As most of you know, tortellini are small, stuffed with a meat and parmigiano filling and traditionally served in a rich chicken/meat soup. Keep in mind that the amazing homemade tortellini from Modena have nothing to do with the abominations found, either fresh or frozen, in grocery stores. These are handmade jewels that involve endless hours of labor, which can only be achieved with great patience, passion and determination (a nice glass of wine nearby only enhances the experience, believe me).
Tortelloni are larger, stuffed with a creamy and savory filling made with ricotta and either Swiss chard or spinach, and served in a simple butter and parmigiano sauce. Sheer perfection.
I made my filling a day ahead and refrigerated it. I dragged out the big tagliere (large wooden board usually used to make homemade pasta) that had been quietly in storage for years, and got to work. As I mixed the flour and the eggs, (the ONLY ingredients needed to make fresh pasta, don’t you dare add oil or anything else!), my American reality began to slowly fade, and I was a child in my mother’s yellow kitchen in Portici, casually observing as her magic hands created this huge, almost paper-thin sfoglia, a soft sheet, born from a small ball of pliable dough. She worked quickly, my mother, pure-blooded Modenese that she was, raised in this wonderful tradition. With a little wheel, she cut the squares, quickly covering them with dish towels, since they dry very fast, shouting directions to make room on the table, to the three of us kids, who were just hanging around the warm kitchen, caring little, taking it all for granted, innocently believing that it would always be like this, that time would stand still, she would always be there, rolling out pasta with that long wooden pin, happy and upset at once, rushing, stressing, exulting.
The tortelloni were my favorites, and still are. Italian children are not very fond of soup (except for the iconic pastina in chicken broth), so knowing that these delectable fat and tender dumplings were to be served as a nice pasta first course was super-exciting.
Once they were all stuffed, she lined them all up on numerous plates and placed them on every flat surface in the house, to dry till the next day. Now, in our modern times, people do not follow this practice any longer, for the legitimate fear of salmonella, and the tortelloni are placed to dry in the refrigerator, and of course this is what I do. (However, maybe because nobody ever thought of such things then, none of us ever fell ill).
The table was set in the kitchen, with a soft, freshly-laundered tablecloth. Unless we had dinner guests, we never ate in the dining room, when I was growing up in Italy, and with my family being small and introverted, it was quite a rare occasion that anyone else was invited to a meal. But the room was large, sunny and inviting, the old radio (built by my uncle who was a master radio and tv technician) played cheerfully in the background. My mother filled the individual dishes at the stove (she never placed the serving bowl in the middle of the table), and we would eagerly dig in, eating way too fast, our childish eyes much larger than our stomachs, often becoming frustrated for not being able to devour more of those marvels of gustatory joy. Then it was over. Another year or so to wait for the next batch…unless we begged her to please please make tortelloni again, for the next holiday, instead of something more mundane and boring like baked pasta or lasagne. And the dear soul usually complied.
Well, wishing and sighing will get me nowhere useful, so I suck up the pain, lock it up in the sealed chambers of my heart, roll up my sleeves and lose myself in the exhaustion of honest labor.
Tortelloni filled with ricotta, spinach, a lifetime of memories, fury, love, frustration and infinite melancholy, are ready! Come and get them!
Buon anno a tutti! Happy New Year!